Apr 09

CHARLENE – “I’ve Never Been To Me”

FT + Popular72 comments • 6,749 views

#503, 26th June 1982

One of my favourite old threads on ILX was a compendium of right-wing American cartoons, in which politics I found highly disagreeable were counterbalanced by craft and chutzpah. In fact my reactions were murkier than that – my horror at the opinions was part of the thrill. I certainly wouldn’t have had this reaction to right-wing columnists or talk shows so I assume the medium gave the material a – possibly dangerous – air of safety.

I have a similar reaction to conservative pop, especially country and country-tinged records like “I’ve Never Been To Me”, which Charlene kicks off in a laid-back Carly Simon mode before waxing increasingly rabid over the futility of female independence. The rather feeble self-help title is no preparation for the contents: this is strong meat. “I’ve spent my life exploring the subtle whoring that costs too much to be free” is the kind of lyric I’m surprised to find at #1 unbanned – perhaps DJs were simply too shell-shocked by the bug-eyed spoken word interlude (“THAT’S love! THAT’S truth!”) to notice.

The masterstroke is presenting the whole thing as a Rime of the Ancient Mariner style narrative, sung to an anonymous lady who is quite probably trying hard to extract herself from the conversation. The frame gives a context for Charlene’s rising hysteria – she knows she might be taken as a nutcase but she’s got to get her story over anyhow. So unlike, say, “No Charge”, “Never Been To Me” isn’t ever complacent – there’s something at stake here (even if you don’t agree).

The arrangement is creamy, well-constructed MOR, but beyond the lyric it’s Charlene’s performance that makes “Never Been” so memorable – the way she sounds so ecstatic wallowing in her own disappointment, her dangerously precise cadences, her marvellous 70s breathiness. Yes, in the charts of 1982 this might have seemed like an infuriating anachronism – but I think its unusual blend of schlock and intensity would have stood out in any year.



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  1. 31
    Conrad on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Was Charlene American?

    I thought she was from Goodmayes in Essex.

  2. 32
    DV on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Little DV found this song a bit daring, with all its talk of people, you know, having sex and stuff. The idea that it might be all rather reactionary was something I only heard many years later and found a bit disturbing.

  3. 33
    wichita lineman on 8 Apr 2009 #

    Re 30: We Call It Acieed was definitely banned by the BBC. But I heard Charlene plenty, and have to agree that it’s a 2 for me at best (as with Ebony & Ivory, bonus point for “isle of Greece” laughs).

    Speaking of which, E&I was in the middle of a SEVEN WEEK run at no.1 in the US while Charlene had her moment in the British sun. Prior to this, those dum Yanks had already placed the following at no.1 in ’82:

    Hall & Oates – I Can’t Go For That
    J Geils Band – Centerfold
    Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – I Love Rock’n’Roll
    Vangelis – Chariots Of Fire

    …all of which I’m fond of to some extent. And they didn’t buy as many copies of Seven Tears as we did, bad haircuts or not.

  4. 34
    Mark G on 8 Apr 2009 #

    We Call It Acieed was eventually banned, it had already appeared on Top of the Pops, but when the whole ‘ban raves’ media frenzy happened, it was easy to ban it for non-existant drugs references.

  5. 35
    Nx on 9 Apr 2009 #

    Never heard of this song! I’m shocked that this is the same woman who tried to be some kind of video vixen, singing “Fire” in The Last Dragon just a few years later.

    Man, the things you find trying to find out how long ILX will be down…

  6. 36
    vinylscot on 9 Apr 2009 #

    Terrible song; still can’t fathom why it would have been a hit, far less a #1.

    It always struck me as a bit of a show song, or something pulled from a movie – like the Mash theme song for example. It’s like you needed to know more to make the song mean anything.

    To be quite honest, without some sort of solid background evidence, I just can’t believe Charlene had been undressed by kings!

  7. 37
    Mark G on 9 Apr 2009 #

    To be honest, the line about “Sometime’s I’ve got to cryin’ for unborn children that would have made me complete’ is the “OK, gotta go now” point for me as well as the other woman she’s got viciously by the arm.

  8. 38
    AndyPandy on 9 Apr 2009 #

    Re 33: I’d agree with you on Hall and Oates and in the respect of a “long service award” Vangelis although I’ve always blamed the track in question for giving a lot of people the wrong idea about someone responsible for some extremely worthwhile albums and in an excerpt of “Heaven and Hell” one of my alltime favourite pieces of music…

    …whatever the case on its eventual banning the ironic thing about ‘We Call It Acieed’ was that in the line saying words to the effect of they say “it’s a drug but it isn’t” they’re obviously going out of their way to avoid a ban

    …having said that in a rare possible ‘actual Radio 1 ban’ scenario I seem to remember reading at the time that Jolly Roger ‘Acid Man’ and Children of the Night ‘Its A Trip’ HAD been banned from daytime airplay (the latter with full ‘Viz’-esque drug outrage piece in ‘The Sun’ which I believe called for it to be banned from actual sale!) but to be honest you could have hardly imagined ‘DLT’, ‘Bruno’ or even ‘ooooh’ Gary Davis playing dancefloor tackle like those in a million years even if they’d been extolling the virtues of the bloody Radio 1 roadshow

  9. 39
    will on 9 Apr 2009 #

    To be fair to ‘Oooh’ Gary Davies he did ‘get behind’ a number of rave-y tracks towards the end of his tenure at Radio One. I remember him loudly extolling the virtues of Bizarre Inc’s Such A Feeling on his bit in the middle during what must have been ’91.

  10. 40
    Matthew K on 10 Apr 2009 #

    This was a LANDMARK record for me. Aged 12, it was the first number 1 that made me realise that the Top Ten wasn’t necessarily the best possible music in the world, and that a song could make it to number one, even though I hated it with every fibre of my being. I remember the realisation sharply, and it set the agenda for my next 27 years of musical taste. Thank you Charlene.
    Also – it’s not Carly Simon she’s aping in the mellow bit, it’s Karen Carpenter surely. Who was a genius of course.

  11. 41
    Ken Boothe on 10 Apr 2009 #

    Hated it at the time (everyone hated it at the time – it was playground law) but I play it a surprising amount now I’m senile. By that I mean I fish it out a couple of times a year, usually after the pub and usually along with ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ and ‘Angie Baby’.

    Kings, yachts and ‘Isle Of Greece’ aside, lest we forget that INBTM also contains the fantastically racy lyric – “Moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed ’em what I GOT”. I find it hard not to be impressed every time I hear that part.

  12. 42
    peter goodlaws on 10 Apr 2009 #

    Hey, Ken! How you doing?

    You rescued old Waldo from harm many years ago. I want to thank you for that.

  13. 43
    wichita lineman on 10 Apr 2009 #

    Re 41: Oh the humanity – by the time this was a hit Charlene was living near Harlow rather than Monte Carlo.

  14. 44
    rosie on 10 Apr 2009 #

    Ken @ 41: Playground Law – well, this was the age of conformity above all, and playground law is one of the tools by which conformity is enforced. This was the age of Family Fortunes, the game show in which original thinking was penalised and running with the herd rewarded!

    It never occurred to me until this thread started that this song could be construed as particularly right-wing. That’s certainly not my reading. Could somebody enlighten me, please?

  15. 45
    AndyPandy on 10 Apr 2009 #

    Will at No 39 – actually unlike the other 2 I can imagine Gary Davis being into the more poppy side of rave – he always did seem to be more of your local High Street club dj made good with the possible at least vague working knowledge of the ‘soul/funk-house-rave’continuum that the,admittedly ironic in his case, medallion man image he used to play up to would imply. For a period in around 1986/87 I was working in a factory where owing to this battered stereo I used to use only seeming to be able to pick up Radio 1 I used to listen to Radio 1 all day and although his music was usually shite I didn’t actually mind Gary Davis he seemed a sort of a personable bloke playing up to the Smashy and Nicey image with an ironic twinkle in his eye. Almost a breath of fresh air compared with the other dinosaurs on in the day in those days…

  16. 46
    SteveM on 10 Apr 2009 #

    I do have a vague memory of Gary Davis praising Urban Shakedown’s ‘Some Justice’ on Radio 1, but can’t say for sure that it really happened ha.

  17. 47
    vinylscot on 10 Apr 2009 #

    I’ve just added a particularly unpleasant cover of this to the “Bunny thriough the looking glass” playlist on Spotify.

  18. 48
    Dan M. on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Horrifying and unforgettable. I was particularly impressed by that WTF lyric, “moved like Harlow through Monte Carlo,” reaching for a rhyme to a blonde bombshell comedienne of 40-50 years earlier, who, appealing though she was, moved with a rolling-shoulder slouch that I always found a bit schlumpfy. I appreciate keeping the past alive and all, but did Harlow really evoke much to the audience in ’82 (or ’76 for that matter)? I was trying to come up with some alternatives… “like Theda Bara through Montserrat?”

  19. 49
    Mark M on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Deeply retro film references not unknown at the time (of writing, rather than release), as in:

    “In the morning from a Bogart movie/In a country where they turn back time/You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre/Contemplating a crime…”

    from Al Stewart’s Year Of The Cat.

  20. 50
    Mark M on 17 Apr 2009 #

    And a couple of years later, that master name-dropper Lloyd Cole was talking about a bird who looked like Eva Marie Saint in On The Waterfront (in gloomy black and white then, as opposed to the lovely Technicolor of North By Northwest).

  21. 51
    Erithian on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Not forgetting that one of the biggest US hits of the previous year was “Bette Davis Eyes”. The same year as “I’m In Love With A German Film Star” and indeed Adam Ant dressing up as Valentino (who was namechecked in “Manic Monday” not long afterwards). There was a lot of it about!

  22. 52
    Mark M on 17 Apr 2009 #

    And indeed, as I don’t think my ears ever picked up, in Bette Davis Eyes her hair is “Harlow gold”. Jean Harlow is one of those movie stars more famous as a notion anyway than an actual screen presence – I was wondering whether I had actually seen her in anything, but she is in The Public Enemy and I’ve seen that. But not any of her star vehicles.

  23. 53
    AndyPandy on 17 Apr 2009 #

    ‘John Wayne is Big Leggy’ also from this year although I suppose even in 1982 he was known by just about everyone so maybe not obscure enough

  24. 54
    punctum on 30 Oct 2009 #

    In the branch of Blockbuster Video at Headington there is, or was at any rate, a section I think unique in branches of Blockbuster (unless any readers know different), specifically devoted to Dysfunctional TV Movies. You may know the type of thing I mean – usually starring Cheryl Ladd and/or Brian Dennehy and/or Frederick Forrest and/or at least one of the cast from the TV sitcom Alice, concerning a battered wife who may also have breast cancer and/or a long-serving employee who has been made redundant from the steelworks after thirty years of service and undergoes a midlife crisis because he “won’t work for no Japanese,” finally ending up rowing a leaky boat in the middle of a lake at midnight. Sometimes child custody is involved; more often than not there are extensive (because inexpensive) scenes in the courtroom (Judd Hirsch! Karl Malden RIP big man! Tyne Daly!) always ending in victory for the victimised hero/heroine, invariably grinning and raising her fist in front of reporters on the courtroom steps; cue freeze-frame, sub-Windham Hill piano muzak and “This film was based on a true story.”

    You will not be surprised to learn that this was a truly guilty pleasure of Laura, my first partner, and myself; frequent were the Tuesday nights at nine o’clock on Channel Four when we were in hysterics of mirth, carefully counting off all the cliches one by one as they appeared – and if any record epitomised “dysfunctional” then surely it was “I’ve Never Been To Me” (that title!) sung by the mysterious (i.e. one lucky shot then back to her local Taco Bell) Charlene (that name!!).

    The record was already three years old when it hit in Britain, and I can’t remember how or why it suddenly became big (though suspect that, yet again, Radio 2 were involved), but it is simultaneously hilarious and ghastly. Over an intro of sub-Windham Hill piano muzak the tremulous Charlene is playing the wise sage warning her subject not to do what she has done. “You’re a discontented mother/And a regimented wife.” Is it any wonder that her “lady” wants shot of it all? But oh no, Charlene is about to warn her of the terrible perils of “freedom.” In the first verse she describes her rootless wanderings around America (“Oh I’ve been to Georgia and California/And anywhere I could run”) and in the second she takes on the world (“Oh I’ve been to Nice/And the Isle of Greece – !!???!! -/While I sipped champagne on a yacht”). Her “weary heart” which has “lived a million lives” then becomes a stuffed shirt: “I’ve. Seen. Some. Things. That. A. Wo. Man. Ain’t. ‘Sposed. Ta. See.” “Hey lady, I’ve been to paradise” (high) “but I’ve never been to me” (low).

    If it sounds as though we’re getting into treacherous “Stand By Your Man” territory here, then you’d be right, for we now get The Climactic Talkover, acted in a suitably teary manner: “Hey! You know what paradise is? It’s a lie. A fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be” (recited as though reading a Martha Stewart recipe off the back of TV Guide). “But you know what truth is?” (perhaps a belated answer to Johnny Cash’s 1972 hit “What Is Truth?” or an attempted refutal of Kantian precepts) “It’s that little baby you’re holding,” she begins to sob, “And it’s that man you fought with this morning! The same man you’re gonna make love with tonight! That’s TRUTH! That’s LOVE!!”

    Give her a cardboard Oscar and have done with it. But has she finished? Sigh…nope: “Sometimes I’ve been to crying for unborn children/That might have made me complete.” Is this a Moral Majority recruitment ad? “I’ve spent my life exploring/The subtle whoring/That costs too much to be free” (thereby becoming one of the very few number ones whose lyric contains the word “subtle” although the song itself is decidedly not). The message? Don’t have fun, don’t go and live your own life, lady; stay at home, get beaten up and fucked, have children, know your fucking place.

    The Taliban would have had no problem with the sentiment of “I’ve Never Been To Me” even if they are anti-music. Did British housewives in 1982 really feel so worthless and feeble that they wept along to Charlene with their sherry and valium just to confirm everything a thousand people had already told them? And, even more baffingly, what the hell was this doing on Motown? Its rise to number one forms the bend in the New Pop river; there would be further “New Pop” number ones, but as far as the first wave was concerned the impetus was lost, the opportunities squandered, the future rejected for 1975 again and again. Now that is a working definition of dysfunction.

    “Isle of Greece”…

  25. 55
    Tommy Mack on 30 Oct 2009 #

    I’d like to think the second Charlene finished her sermon, the ‘discontented mother’ told her to get f cked and stop feeling so bloody sorry for herself.

    Isle of Greece? Isle of grease, perhaps? Like a giant lump of lard sitting in the sea, slowly melting in the sun into the world’s first edible oilslick?

  26. 56
    Tommy Mack on 30 Oct 2009 #

    “she sounds so ecstatic wallowing in her own disappointment” is about right. Kind of reminds me of a friend of mine who always took the opportunity to mope about how he’d slept with so many beautiful women and yet none of them ever turned out to be the one. Which was a pretty flimsy excuse for some ludicrous bragging…

  27. 57
    Brooksie on 21 Feb 2010 #

    @ DanM # 48: “I appreciate keeping the past alive and all, but did Harlow really evoke much to the audience in ’82 (or ’76 for that matter)? I was trying to come up with some alternatives… “like Theda Bara through Montserrat?””

    The funniest thing I have ever read on popular!

    As for the feminist / ant-feminist lyrics of the song; I could give two figs less about it. The opposite of songs like this are all the shitty female vocalists who sing dance songs about their relationships that are ’empowering’ and all sound like 3 minutes of pure slapped-in-your-face misandry. There was a song out not too long ago by a teenage Scandinavian lass who was singing about a friend of hers being beaten up by her boyfriend. It had lyrics like, “When you put your hands on her / you are not a man.” It was a teenage girl singing a self-righteous song written by someone else about what is / isn’t a man via an experience she herself hadn’t been through or seen. I think that was the point where I realised there was something wrong with the world. There’s a culturally accepted ad-hoc victim status and an unjustified false sense of self-righteousness in modern music – usually from female artists – that makes the gender politics of ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’ sound like ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’!

  28. 58
    thefatgit on 22 Feb 2010 #

    “Isle of Greece”

    For a while, I thought this was some sort of C&W crossover hit. That Greece reference almost confirmed to me at the time that it was written (or should I say “scrawled in crayon”) by some ignint redneck, for some Nashville waitress.

    “I’ve been to Paradise (obviuosly nowhere near Greece then) but I’ve never been to me”

    So basically Charlene, you’re telling us that the alternative to settling down to domestic bliss with a loving husband and a couple of kids, is to go on a worldwide shagathon and witness the dark underbelly of life. Finally to sit down and pass on your wisdom to any poor young female who’ll listen.


    No, Dear. That’s what you’ll settle for after drowning your sorrows in gin, after finding out that your syphillis has reached chancre-sore stage.

    A truly hateful record.

  29. 59
    Chelovek na lune on 8 Sep 2010 #

    I loved it then, I love it still. Especially the version with the voice-over about what’s real, that’s love, etc. (There were definitely two versions available as 7″s in 1982 – the original, 1976 one, which had a burgundy-and-white covered cover with a picture of the chanteuse herself on, and a 1982 release, which, at Woolworths in Dagenham, anyway, went in a generic black sleeve only – or for all I know the sleeve illustrated here, which I’ve never seen before. I made sure to get the 1976 version)

    The B-side “Somewhere In My Life” is cracking, as well.

    On the “working in a sweet-shop in Ilford” thing, I believe it’s true (it was certainly reported in the local papers at the time); although I should emphasize that the shop in question (which was then called Foxes IIRC, and is right next to the railway station) was probably at least as much about selling tobacco and cigars and pipe-smoking accessories, etc, as it was sweeties.

    Anyway, this is proper adult pop music, and I love it. Do I come out a conservative now, or what? At the end of the day it’s a reasonable description of me, in some ways at least….

  30. 60
    paul ramsey on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Listen to Nancy Wilson’s magnificent cover of this record and marvel at the song being sung(and half whispered) in a world weary tone: charlene sings it like a waitress reading a menu whereas nancy gives the song and the lyric a proper meaning; but then soul artists usually pull that off see millie jackson’s cover of summer the first time and johnny bristol’s original version of love me for a reason and while were at it what about the valentine brothers original of moneys too tight to mention.

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